SLO County Sheriff's Deputy James Silverstein hit the lights and sirens. The car in front of him pulled to a stop near the desolate intersection of Highway 41 and Cripple Creek Road just outside of Creston on July 8, 2015.
- Photo by Jayson Mellom
- THE "BOSS" Prosecutors said Chase Michael Hanson, 27 of Morro Bay, was the elusive head of a local drug trafficking organization that brought kilograms of cocaine into SLO County before he was arrested in 2015.
The vehicle's registration was expired. At first, Silverstein didn't notice anything suspicious, but then he saw what appeared to be a plastic bag containing a white, powdery residue in the center console. A further search of the car produced more. Inside an innocuous-looking Abercrombie & Fitch paper bag was one of the biggest narcotics hauls Silverstein had ever seen: Six bricks of uncut cocaine totaling nearly 3 kilograms, or more than 6.6 pounds.
The car's driver, Cayucos resident Alexander Allan Matarese, was arrested and booked into SLO County Jail. It wasn't long until Dane James Bennett's cell phone began to ring.
"How old is he?" Chase Michael Hanson's voice crackled over the line.
Bennett replied quickly: "31."
"He's in jail," Hanson fired back.
Bennett responded without pausing: "OK. I need to break my phone."
Until Matarese's arrest, business had been thriving for the two men. Between January 2014 and August 2015, they ran a well-organized drug trafficking organization that imported and sold large quantities of cocaine in North SLO County. Hanson, a convicted felon and Morro Bay resident, was the elusive "CEO" of the drug ring. Bennett, another ex-con and recovering drug addict, was his manager, helping to coordinate its illegal operations.
What happened that night marked the beginning of the organization's downfall. Less than one month later, a cadre of local and federal law enforcement officials arrested Hanson, Bennett, and seven others in what officials claimed was one of the biggest drug busts in SLO County's recent history.
Nearly two years after his arrest, Bennett appeared in a SLO County courtroom, shackled and swathed in neon orange jail garb to testify against the 27-year-old Hanson. With a mop of dark hair and glasses, Bennett looked much younger than his 28 years. He said he felt relief when he and the other members of the organization were finally cuffed and taken into custody in August 2015.
"If we all get arrested, it would be safer than owing [Hanson]," he told the jury.
A long time SLO County resident, Bennett was addicted to cocaine and opioid painkillers when he was arrested for domestic violence in 2012. After serving three months in jail, Bennett left California and moved north to Washington, opting to complete a drug treatment program and attempt to rebuild his life. He kept out of trouble and even landed a job working at a local Home Depot.
But that all changed in 2013 when he got a phone call from an old acquaintance, Hanson. According to Bennett, the two crossed paths about eight months prior to his arrest, when Bennett began dealing cocaine at Hanson's request.
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- THE "MANAGER" Dane Michael Bennett, 28, coordinated the drug ring's activities at Hanson's request. He claims that Hanson made him a "pawn", keeping him in the organization with threats and intimidation.
"He came over to my house and asked me if I wanted to sell drugs for him," Bennett said.
Hanson called in 2013 to offer Bennett a similar proposition. But the offer wasn't a request. It was a demand, according to Bennett. Hanson had been involved in Bennett's domestic violence case, accused of brandishing a gun (it turned out to be a fake) at Bennett's girlfriend. Hanson was never convicted, but claimed that he had to spend $10,000 on a lawyer. Hanson wanted that $10,000 back from Bennett.
"I owed Hanson a lot of money. I couldn't pay him back," Bennett said.
Hanson's solution was simple. Bennett could pay off what he owed by coming back to California and helping him sell drugs once again. Bennett didn't believe that he actually owed Hanson the money, but he didn't argue either. He'd heard stories about Hanson—how he could "find people," how he could get angry and volatile when things went wrong. He'd seen the firearms Hanson kept around his home.
"You don't go against him," Bennett explained.
Bennett quit his job, sold his car for $1,400, and bought a ticket back to California. He waited three months to finish out his rehab program and then hopped on a plane. Bennett told his family that he was working at another Home Depot in California. In reality, the trip marked the beginning of his involvement in managing a sophisticated and well-organized drug trafficking operation at Hanson's direction.
To hear Bennett tell it, the choice wasn't a choice at all.
"What am I going to say? 'No?'" he said.
Building a 'business'
Before Bennet had his turn to testify at Hanson's July 2017 trial, Kenneth Michael Gunn took the stand.
During his testimony, Gunn, a DEA agent who worked with the SLO County Sheriff's Office and an alphabet soup of other local and federal agencies on the case, gave the jury a crash course in the history of cocaine trafficking.
It started in the 1970s, when individual "cowboys" began importing the party drug into the states, followed by the rise of drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel that piggybacked on the subsequent coke boom in the U.S. in the 1980s. At that time, the powerful Colombian cartels and others like them would pay cash to have criminal organizations in Mexico smuggle massive amounts of cocaine across the border into the U.S. Eventually, those organizations began asking for the drug as payment instead. As the DEA and other law enforcement agencies began cracking down on the larger cartels in 1990s, Gunn said the drug trafficking landscape became more splintered. Mexican organizations rose to fill the vacuum, moving loads of cocaine to enterprising criminals and dealers in America looking to make—as Gunn put it—"supplemental income."
He compared the current supply chain of cocaine operations to a fast-food hamburger franchise. Hanson's attorney, Jeffry Radding, described it as similar to another "side hustle" the jurors might be familiar with.
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- MOVING WEIGHT Law enforcement recovered an estimated 3 kilograms of cocaine during a July 2015 traffic stop of one of the drug ring's drivers.
"It sounds like what you are describing is the sharing economy, Radding said. "It's like an Uber driver."
According to Gunn and other law enforcement officials who worked on the case, Hanson's drug trafficking organization was one of these enterprising "start ups," well-organized with the clear hierarchy. At its top was Hanson, who ran the operation from a condo on Napa Avenue in Morro Bay, less than half a mile from the city's police station. According to prosecutors, Bennett developed a connection in Bakersfield who was willing to sell him kilos of unadulterated or "uncut" cocaine. In order to get the drugs from his Bakersfield connection, Hanson reportedly organized an operation that allowed him to transport, cut, package, and distribute the cocaine locally.
"You're on your way to making a lot of money," Hanson told Bennett during one of many phone conversations between the two recorded by law enforcement.
Bennett was Hanson's right hand, known within the organization as the "manager." Other employees of the organization included Alexander John Getzbouchillon, also known as the "holder" who would store the drugs at his home for distribution to dealers. Another member dubbed the "scientist," provided guidance and advice on the quality of the cocaine, reportedly coming up with the idea to use caffeine and popular powdered bodybuilding supplement inositol to "step on" the drug. This enabled the group to turn a single kilo of uncut cocaine into two, keeping the product's quality while allowing them to make more money off street-level sales. Further down in the pecking order were drivers like Matarese and low-level dealers like Jason Vidal Sianez. In total, law enforcement identified nine individuals, including Hanson, as members of the drug ring.
"This was their business," SLO County Prosecutor Kristy Imel told jurors in her closing statement. "To make money."
While Hanson may have been in charge, he worked hard to stay out of the limelight. During his testimony, Bennett said he was the one who conducted most of the organization's day-to-day operations, communicating and coordinating pickups and drop offs with drivers and other tasks.
"I was basically taking care of everybody without [Hanson] having to do it," Bennett said.
In fact, most of the members of the organization never saw or spoke to Hanson, primarily dealing with Bennett instead. In another recorded conversation, Hanson indicated that was exactly how he preferred things.
"He doesn't know me," Hanson said, referring to one of the organization's drivers. "He doesn't know my name. He doesn't know my face. He knows nothing."
To keep their operation secret from law enforcement, Bennett said the group burned through hundreds of pre-paid cell phones and hired drivers with clean records. Hanson spent at least $5,000 on a specially encrypted cell phone, which he sent Bennett to pick up from Los Angeles.
"Some guy opened the door in his pajamas and handed me a phone in a gun case," Bennett said in court.
But just because Hanson wanted to stay out of the picture didn't mean he was aloof when it came to how his business was run. Testimony, evidence, and the recorded phone calls showed that he took an active role in operating the organization through Bennett. Several of the phone calls feature Hanson giving specific directions to Bennett, asking for detailed information about how much dealers were selling or asking about the status of deliveries. Bennett said he ran all big decisions by Hanson, who would also offer him advice on how to manage the operation. One recorded call featured Hanson chiding Bennett over how best to handle a dealer who'd been having cash flow problems.
"These are managerial problems you gotta take care of yourself," Hanson told him. "You gotta find a solution to the problem."
Such pep talks weren't simply friendly advice, Bennett said. Keeping his boss happy meant his job remained secure.
"[Hanson] used to threaten me and say, 'I have three more like you,'" Bennett said.
It wasn't the only time Bennett claimed that Hanson made what he believed were threatening comments. His testimony and multiple recorded phone calls revealed a dark side to the self-proclaimed "businessman," hinting at what he might have been willing to do in order to keep a firm grip on his budding drug empire.
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- HARDWARE Investigators recovered seven firearms, including this custom-painted AK-47, in connection with the cocaine trafficking case.
'I'm about to whack this fucking fool'
"I just grabbed your boy," Bennett told Hanson over the phone. "I'm on my way."
He made the call from Oakland, where he'd driven on Hanson's orders to meet a man he'd never met before. Bennett described the man as a 6-foot tall black male with tattoos on his face. He never learned the man's name. His job was simply to drive the man to Sacramento, where they were supposed to pay a visit to someone who owed Hanson a drug debt. The man's payment for acting as Hanson's muscle? One ounce of cocaine.
Hanson wanted a message delivered.
"He's gonna know what's up when you guys are there," Hanson told Bennett. "If he doesn't make something happen, it's gonna be triggermen next time."
The recorded call was just one of many that prosecutors played for jurors at Hanson's trial, and it wasn't the only one that featured the supposed mastermind making threats of violence. Such threats weren't just reserved for people outside the organization either. In another call, Hanson's alleged temper flared as he spoke to Bennett about a driver suspected of stealing $6,000 from a package of money sent to Bakersfield.
Hanson, in a dark suit with close-cropped hair, sat stoically in the courtroom as he listened to himself ask Bennett if he knew any remote places to meet the driver.
"I'm about to whack this fucking fool," Hanson's voice said, coming out of the speaker.
In yet another call, Hanson told Bennett that a member of the organization has been "running his mouth" and talking about the organization being "connected to a cartel."
"Let him know that our hands stretch a very long way," he told Bennett.
Bennett took Hanson's words seriously and claimed that he had been on the receiving end of comments that made him fear for his safety. After moving to California, Bennett lived with Hanson in the condo on Napa Avenue. During his time there, Bennett claimed, Hanson dropped cryptic, veiled threats, randomly calling out Bennett's social security number or the home address of his grandmother in a mocking tone, information Bennett said he never gave him. In another incident, Bennett said he was smoking a cigarette outside on the patio when he saw Hanson pointing a loaded AR-15 semiautomatic rifle at him from a window. Bennett claimed Hanson laughed about the incident and later told him "you won't be scared of anything now."
Both Bennett and Hanson were already convicted felons, barred from owning or possessing firearms, yet guns were a constant presence at the condo. Bennett testified that he'd seen several guns pass through the home. In one instance, Bennett said Hanson showed him an AK-47 rifle in the back seat of his black Range Rover. In another, he claimed he saw a rifle that someone had given up in order pay back a drug debt.
"Someone owed us money," Bennett said. "That was $800 off his debt."
According to court documents, law enforcement recovered a total of seven guns at various locations associated with Hanson's drug trafficking operation.
Between the weapons and Hanson's comments, Bennett said he disliked staying in the condo and would often go to his girlfriend's residence or rent a hotel room to get away from what he called a "stressful" atmosphere. Despite his fear, Bennett testified that he couldn't leave the organization, fearing repercussions.
"I could not get out of the game. That's what Hanson told me," he said. "I was stuck."
Still, Bennett admitted under cross examination that Hanson never directly threatened him, and prosecutors submitted no evidence that Hanson ever made good on any of his physical threats, raising the question about whether such talk was merely bragging. SLO County Sheriff's Detective Jason Nadal, who led the department's investigation of the drug ring, said he was unsure of just how far Hanson might be willing to go.
"Things like that could go either way," Nadal told New Times. "It could be talk. It could be [Hanson] wanting to keep his image going."
But Nadal also noted that such talk had the potential to spiral into real violence. He said that the Oakland man Hanson hired to collect the drug debt was a former enforcer for a bookie, and would likely be willing to use force to carry out orders.
"So now Hanson has set up this deal, and who knows how violent it could have gotten, whether he wanted it to or not," Nadal said.
The characterization of Hanson as the volatile, violent mastermind of the drug operation comes mostly from Bennett's testimony. But just how trustworthy was the "manager" who claimed to be coerced into participating in a criminal enterprise out of fear for his own life while literally living under the roof of the very man he claimed to be afraid of?
Bros for life?
It was October 2014, nearly 10 months since Bennett flew out to California to assume his role in Hanson's cocaine operation, and the two men were more than 2,300 miles away from the Napa Avenue condo.
Fearing that law enforcement may have been onto their operation and that SLO County was too "hot," Hanson procured a house in Oaxaca, Mexico, a city about five hours south of Mexico City. Bennett was invited along on the trip, during which the two rarely ventured outside, only leaving the home to eat meals.
Mexico was just one stop on the trip, which appeared to morph from an attempt to lay low from U.S. lawmen into a jet-setting vacation of sorts. From Oaxaca, the two traveled to Florida, where they passed the time walking and drinking on the beach. After that, they hopped on a cruise ship headed for the Bahamas.
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- DEADLY FIREPOWER This AR-15-style rifle was one of several guns reportedly kept by the drug trafficking organization.
Bennett claimed that he had a "good time" on the cruise, despite the fact that his traveling partner was the same man who allegedly pointed an assault rifle at him and laughed about it.
It was just that type of contradiction that Jeffry Radding, Hanson's defense lawyer, was looking to expose to the jury during his client's 2017 trial. After the prosecution spent nearly 10 days parading witnesses and a mountain of evidence against Hanson before resting its case, Radding presented just a few pieces of evidence. One was a crude drawing found after law enforcement finally raided the Napa Street condo in August of 2015. The drawing showed two stick figures. One was labeled "Chase" and the other "me." Above them were the words "bros for life."
The drawing represented the crux of Radding's argument. He wasn't trying to prove that Hanson's not guilty of trafficking cocaine. He was pushing back on the image that Bennett laid out about Hanson, trying to cast doubt on the former manager's claims that he was forced into his role in the drug trafficking operation.
"This is a chance to set the record straight," Radding told the jury in his closing argument. "Dane Bennett is no victim."
Hanson did not take the stand to testify.
Radding argued that Bennett was actually friendly with Hanson, acting as more of a willing partner than a terrified lackey who was in over his head. While cross examining Bennett, Radding pointed out that in addition to the trips to Mexico, Florida, and the Bahamas, the two attended an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles. They also frequently went out to eat dinner and talk business at local restaurants. Despite Hanson's desire to keep a low profile, law enforcement said he frequented local bars and card rooms, spending as much as $500 a week on alcohol at one establishment. Radding also noted that Hanson had been more than happy to help Bennett out when he needed it, paying for some of his rent at the Napa Avenue condo and even helping him buy a car.
Radding argued that Bennett could have left the Napa Street address at any time. He could have gone to the police, or he could have simply told Hanson "no" during those early calls when he was still in Washington. Those facts, Radding claimed, add up to a starkly different situation than the one Bennett proffered.
"The primary explanation is that he wanted to come down and sell drugs and make money," Radding said. "Dane Bennett is responsible for his conduct. He knew what he was going to do."
The theme of Bennett as an unwilling accomplice, Radding said, began in an interview room shortly after Bennett was arrested. One of the first interviews with Bennett was conducted by SLO narcotics detective Nadal, who Radding said almost immediately expressed his belief that the so-called "manager" was a victim of Hanson's. Radding argued that Bennett, who repeatedly communicated concerns over the amount of jail time he'd do during the interview, was all too willing to play the part the detective set out for him.
"He delivered a theme and [Bennett] picked up on it," Radding said. "[Nadal] had no idea what was inside of Dane Bennett."
If that was the case, then Bennett got what he wanted. In exchange for his cooperation and testimony against Hanson, Bennett secured a plea deal.
In an interview with New Times, Nadal defended his characterization of Bennett. Like other investigators in the case, Nadal spent hours listening to the recorded conversations between the two men. Based on what he heard, the relationship between the two was far more exploitative than Radding would have the jury believe.
"Don't get me wrong, Bennett was a drug dealer. He was selling drugs," Nadal said. "He knew what he was doing, but I think Hanson took advantage of his weakness. I don't want to say he manipulated him, but he took advantage of him."
Bennett described his relationship with Hanson as a complex one that would oscillate between hot and cold, with things between them going smoothly but turning when Hanson would do or say threatening things to him.
"Sometimes we were on good terms and I considered him a friend," Bennett said. "But I was always, always scared of him."
Whatever the status of the personal relationship between Hanson and Bennett was, it was clear that the path to facing each other in a SLO County courtroom began with Materese's arrest.
In July 2015 things were going well for the drug trafficking organization. Drivers were making between $50 and $200 a trip to transport the group's cocaine. Bennett paid off his $10,000 debt and was making $5,000 to $10,000 a month managing the drug ring. Things were going so well that Hanson was reportedly looking to grow the business. They had already dabbled in dealing ecstasy, another party drug, and even marijuana, though Hanson eventually abandoned weed because it wasn't giving him an acceptable financial return.
"[Cocaine] was our main thing," Bennett said. "The weed was just an offshoot for us to try out."
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- A BOOMING BUSINESS Investigators believed that a local drug ring was responsible for importing large amounts of cocaine into SLO County for sale.
Hanson was attempting to expand. He ordered more of the product and even bought a 12-ton industrial press, which could be used to create large bricks of cocaine similar to those he was already buying from his supplier in Kern County. According to prosecutor Imel, Hanson was looking to move up in the drug world.
"He wanted to be just like his Bakersfield connection." Imel said in her closing argument at the trial. "He wanted to make kilos of cocaine,"
But dreams of playing in the big leagues of drug dealing began to fade after Matarese's July 8 bust. The arrest occurred as Matarese was on his way back from picking up cocaine in Bakersfield. He was supposed to check in with Bennett by phone or text every half hour or hour. When he failed to do so, Bennett quickly guessed what had happened to him.
"I'm gonna call the big homies," Bennett told the group's holder, Getzbouchillon, in a phone call made in the hours after Matarese's arrest. "If he got pulled over, he's fucked."
"If he does talk, he's dead," Getzbouchillon replied.
Matarese's bust sparked a flurry of phone calls within the organization. Losing the cocaine not only meant the group couldn't profit from its sale, but put members like Bennett, and Hanson himself, in a dangerous position. According to DEA Agent Gunn, drugs are often furnished by suppliers on consignment, with buyers paying the money back as they sell the drugs. With 3 kilos missing, someone would have to take responsibility for paying back what was owed for the lost product. As the "manager" in charge of coordinating the deliveries, Bennett testified that he knew that the responsibility would likely fall on him, meaning he would be in debt yet again to Hanson.
"That means I owe Hanson a lot of money, and that scared me," Bennett said.
He considered resorting to desperate measures to pay back what was owed for the loss of the cocaine, including robbing a local dealer of 20 pounds of marijuana to cover it.
Gunn listened to the call and was surprised to hear talk of committing a violent robbery coming from members of Hanson's organization.
"I thought it was more of a business-oriented group," Gunn testified.
The reason Gunn, Nadal, and nearly every other law enforcement officer working on the case knew what was happening within Hanson's organization was simple: They'd been watching and listening to the drug ring members for at least nine months as part of an extensive, multi-agency operation tasked with the goal of bringing them to justice.
The investigation was lead by the SLO County Sheriff's Office with assistance from the DEA, the California Highway Patrol, and even the Department of Homeland Security. They'd all been surveilling the group's activities, listening in on their conversations via wiretaps on their phones. The long hours spent listening to the members talk to one another allowed investigators like Nadal to get a detailed look at how the organization operated. Nadal said a local narcotics officer who had previous dealings with Hanson (who was also convicted of felony drug possession in 2012) first put the Sheriff's Office on to the suspected drug ring. The office started investigating in November 2014 and got permission to set up the wiretap the following May. Through the surveillance and monitored calls, investigators learned the true scope of Hanson's operation and were shocked by the amount of drugs it was moving through the county.
"I didn't know that [Hanson] was doing that kind of volume," Nadal said. "I was actually surprised."
The traffic stop that nabbed Matarese and his 3 kilos was no accident. Investigators listened to conversations about the delivery and planned to pull the vehicle over with Deputy Silverstein's help. Nadal said that busting Matarese was a judgment call, based in part on keeping the large load of drugs he was carrying out of the county.
"What does that do to our county? Who is it going to go to? What damage will it create?" Nadal said. "I can probably say that [county Sheriff Ian Parkinson] does not want 3 kilos of cocaine in his county."
Matarese's bust was also an attempt by law enforcement to "tickle the wire" and prompt some kind of reaction from Hanson or the other members of the organization. While some criminals shut down their operations after such a blow, Hanson did no such thing. His people continued to peddle coke in the weeks before they were arrested en masse and shut down for good.
As law enforcement geared up for "takedown day," Hanson continued to operate despite growing worries that the police were on to him. After Matarese's arrest, surveillance witnessed at least one member of the organization handing off 2 ounces of cocaine in the parking lot of McDonald's in Atascadero. Bennett testified that they waited only two weeks after the arrest before resuming operations.
- Photo courtesy of SLO County Sheriff's Office
- BUSTED The drug trafficking operation was broken up after a nine-month investigation that included investigators from the SLO County Sheriff's Office, Department of Homeland Security, and DEA.
"We could have [arrested Matarese] and they could have shut down business and we would have been done," Nadal said. "But they didn't."
Meanwhile, Bennett was thinking of making a run for it. Between the paranoia that the law was onto their operation and his newly acquired drug debt to Hanson, Bennett decided the day to do it would be Aug. 10, 2015, when Hanson was supposed to be out of the country.
But he never got the chance. On Aug. 5, 2015, investigators finally felt they had what they needed to bring in Hanson and his associates.
Bennett was alone at the condo when sheriff's deputies in SWAT gear raided the home to arrest him and serve a search warrant. They turned up a .357 Magnum handgun with ammo, bags of powdered inositol and caffeine, multiple cell phones and scales, and even a digital money counting machine. In the garage, they discovered the 12-ton press, leading them to believe the cocaine was processed and cut at the address.
Napa Avenue wasn't the only address that law enforcement hit. At Getzbouchillon's home, they found roughly a kilogram of cocaine and an improvised "kit" stuffed into a suitcase, which included gloves, heat lamps, and a handwritten, 17-step recipe for cutting cocaine. Another kilogram was recovered from Sawyer Scott Sackett, who'd taken over as a driver after Matarese's arrest. Investigators also found cocaine in varying amounts from search warrants served on drug ring members Joseph Arch Messineo, Johnnie James Medina Jr., and Jonathan David Byham.
One the biggest evidentiary hauls from the sweep wasn't found on Napa Street or any of the various apartments and homes of the drug ring members. Instead it was found at the Paso Robles home of Hanson's grandparents. In a locked shed on the property, investigators recovered six "long guns" including a shotgun, two single shot rifles, two AK-47s, and an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. In addition to the firearms, the shed contained multiple extended-round magazines, which are illegal to possess in California.
"The only people who should have those are law enforcement and the military, not a drug trafficking organization," SLO County prosecutor Imel told the jurors during the trial.
In addition to the weapons, the shed also held approximately 115 grams of MDMA, more than 1,000 individual doses. Imel believed that Hanson moved the guns and drugs to his grandfather's shed some time after Matarese was arrested. During emotional testimony, Hanson's grandfather said he had no idea what was in the shed.
In five raids conducted between Aug. 5 and 7, law enforcement arrested nine members of the operation, including Bennett, Getzbouchillion, Medina, Messineo, and, of course, Hanson. Their mug shots graced a large poster displayed at an Aug. 11, 2015 press conference. Local news cameras rolled as Sheriff Parkinson, SLO County District Attorney Dan Dow, and other law enforcement officials proudly stood in front of tables piled with nearly five kilograms, or 11 pounds, of cocaine and the seven firearms recovered as part of the operation.
For Nadal, takedown day was a relief. It marked the end of one of the most challenging and involved cases he'd worked in his career.
"It was a lot of work, a lot of hours, and a lot of staying up late," Nadal said. "Fortunately for me, I had a lot of people with a lot of knowledge and experience working these kinds of cases surrounding me."
Shutting down Hanson and the other members of the drug ring had a noticeable impact on the street.
"I believe that the majority of the cocaine that was being brought into the county was by [Hanson's] organization," he said. "In our line of business we have informants that we talk to. ... I had at least one of these tell me that since that organization was taken down, cocaine was nearly impossible to find in SLO County."
Hanson watched as Prosecutor Imel literally stacked up the evidence against him. As she made her closing arguments, Imel stood next to a rolling cart piled high with bricks and bags of cocaine. The revolver recovered at the Napa Avenue condo rested on top of it. Rifles, ammo, and illegal extended magazines lay in long white boxes stacked against the courtroom's walls. The hulking 12-ton press loomed behind the table where he sat with his attorney.
These were just some of the 295 individual pieces of evidence Imel presented during the trial. Imel believed all of it pointed to one conclusion: That Hanson was the kingpin of one of the county's biggest cocaine trafficking organizations.
- Photo by Jayson Mellom
- IN PLAIN SIGHT Investigators said Chase Hanson ran his drug trafficking ring from a condominium on Napa Avenue in Morro Bay, located less than a mile from the city’s police station.
"How does it always start? It starts with Hanson," Imel said. "Everyone else was his pawn or a sheep."
On June 22, 2017 after a two-week long trial, the jury found Hanson guilty of nine of the 10 felony counts prosecutors charged him with, including conspiracy, drug trafficking, possessing firearms while being a convicted felon, and others.
Bennett received a split eight-year sentence, and will serve five years in SLO County Jail and three years of mandatory post-release supervision in exchange for his testimony against Hanson. Several other members arrested as part of the bust also hammered out plea agreements. Sentences ranged from two to five years of jail time for some to probation or all-out dismissal for others.
At a July 19 hearing, Hanson, shackled and wearing his own bright orange prison jumpsuit, was sentenced to 18 years in state prison.
"He was basically the mastermind behind all this," said SLO County Judge Hugh Mullin III.
After Mullin handed down the sentence, Hanson's parents and a few other supporters in attendance watched as he shook hands with his attorney before being lead out of the courtroom. The chances of him serving the full 18 years is unlikely. Because Hanson's crimes are considered "non-violent," he could be granted an early parole under the voter-approved Proposition 57, which passed in November. Under the auspices of the new law aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons, Hanson could be eligible for parole after serving just five years, or less than 30 percent of his sentence.
"It's only one of the tragedies of Prop. 57," Assistant SLO County DA Lee Cunningham wrote in an email to New Times.
But before the judge could even read his sentence, Imel revealed that the entrepreneurial spirit that landed Hanson in prision might not be totally gone. Hanson had been talking on the phone, again, and law enforcement had been listening, again. In a recorded phone conversation intercepted by the SLO County Jail, Imel said Hanson was heard trying to "give away" his business to someone else while he served his time. The move echoed another one of Hanson's comments spoken over a crackling phone line, to Bennett:
"I'm a fuckin' business man, bro." Δ
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CWMcGuinness